What if citizens had cameras during the Civil War?

I went down with my family to watch a Civil War battle of Picacho Peak this Saturday. This battle took place in Arizona 153 years ago just about 70 miles from here.

It made me wonder: How would an event like this have been ‘documented’ if more citizens (soldiers, included) had some sort of camera? How would this piece of history been communicated?

This is one of the pictures I took. As you could tell, such battles were chaotic, dangerous, noisy (with injured men, cannon fire etc). Of course I could get close to the event thanks to a piece of technology we take for granted: the zoom lens.

A historical (and local) event like this is a great way to help students look at technology, and its implications for recording and retrieving knowledge. For instance:

  • Do cameras give us access to ‘primary source’ documents?
  • Could a picture be trusted?
  • Could a camera angle reveal the photographer’s bias?

In this picture, I cropped out unnecessary details using the zoom. I could have, I suppose, Photoshopped it. It also looked as if this side (the Confederates) was taking more casualties. The outcome of this battle was  a bit unexpected – the Union soldiers retreated, initially. This was not what some of my photographs revealed!

What if I was a reporter for an Union newspaper? Could my photo story, accidentally or deliberately, have distorted the truth?

Having looked over my pictures I thought of doing an unit on Photography & Media next month for my upper level students, asking them to record an event from differnt perspectives.

This lesson plan could be extended. I discovered an interesting colection of 2d and 3D photos of the Civil War here at the Civil War Trust. They also have some good lesson plan ideas.


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